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Will and Meaning

I have no authority to talk about these things, but they fascinate me.

I feel in myself a deep desire for certainty of belief. I want to know that the universe is orderly, and sane, with purpose and meaning. And perhaps it is, but I will never know. At least, not by logical inference.

I believe many things, but none of them can be proven to be true. I would not go so far as to say I have faith. I would instead say that these beliefs are integral to my being.

My intellect knows, however, that these beliefs are unfounded. They exist to provide a conceptual foundation for my understanding of life. They are useful to help make sure that my mind functions in a way that serves my body. Although, in my case, I have subverted myself to the point of, you might be tempted to say, malfunction. That is, if you presume that survival and reproduction are the purpose of life.

And while you can say that, and believe it, you cannot prove it.

I am stuck with the contradiction that my emotional responses to the world are not consistent with my understanding of the world. And my intellect accepts this. But my emotions do not. So they are in conflict. And it causes me great unhappiness. My intellect is proud, and demands integrity and consistency. It refuses to accept any assertion without proof. And since proof is impossible, then it must believe nothing.

This might be fine if I simply followed my emotions. I suppose that’s what I’m trying to do. But there are obstacles. My emotions would lead me into danger. Well, some of them. So, in fact, my intellect is not the only source of conflict. My emotions themselves are in conflict. One drive is to be free, and experience things, and possess things, and to have power, and pleasure. Another drive is to survive, and avoid danger, and things that are associated with it, like embarrassment and humiliation, such as caused by defying social convention, by failure, and by rejection.

These are all such simple things. Conceptually, anyway.

What is even more frustrating, though, is how my emotions are not consistent. I think I want something, but then sometime later, I’m not sure anymore. The contradictions undermine one another. And I become vague, confused, and a bit depressed.

If I could fall back on a world view, that emphatically and unambiguously defined good and bad, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, would I be able to overcome—or at least suppress—these doubts and conflicting emotions? It’s nice to think so. But it seems unlikely.

Another strategy is to come to accept these contractions, and not let them be a source of stress. To stop expecting myself to solve the insoluble. But it seems like failure. Like giving up.

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99 Avenue downtown Edmonton

Went for a walk in residential area south of the commercial district downtown, with a brief diversion to the top of 104 St @ 104 Ave. A few interesting buildings. A couple of ugly parking lots (trying to keep it real).

View from top of the embankment in Victoria Park, looking southwest towards the river. University of Alberta visible in the background.

View from top of the embankment in Victoria Park, looking southwest towards the river. University of Alberta visible in the background.

Looking west. String of condos along 100 Ave and south side of Grandin over the Victoria Golf Club.

Looking west. String of condos along 100 Ave and south side of Grandin over the Victoria Golf Club.

Rear view.

Rear view.

99 St @ 104 Ave. Front facade.

99 St @ 104 Ave. Front facade.

Front View.

Front View.

Parking Lot Freemason's Hall Freemason's Hall Entrance Federal Building

Major renovation of 108 St and repairs to the legislature building's dome.

Major renovation of 108 St and repairs to the legislature building’s dome.

One of the only neoclassical buildings in Edmonton.

One of the only neoclassical buildings in Edmonton.

Looking north. Most beautiful sidewalk in downtown Edmonton.

Looking north. Most beautiful sidewalk in downtown Edmonton.

Grandin LRT entrance.

Grandin LRT entrance.

108 St @ 99 Ave

Looking west. Grant MacEwan University on the right (north side), parking lot and Denny's on the left.

Looking west. Grant MacEwan University on the right (north side), parking lot and Denny’s on the left.

Parking lot with lovely view of parkade (what they call parking garages in Alberta).

Parking lot with lovely view of parkade (what they call parking garages in Alberta).

Looking east from the bridge over the historic street car track. Bowker building, Capital Boulevard construction and Federal building visible.

Looking east from the bridge over the historic street car track. Bowker building, Capital Boulevard construction and Federal building visible.

South side of condos looking out over Victoria Park and the river.

South side of condos looking out over Victoria Park and the river.

 

 

Photos: San Francisco 2013

Taken In February. Various buildings and street scapes, and a few shots from Alcatraz.

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Postmodern Blues

Is this a real life? Is this just fantasy?

Sometimes I feel like I’ve lost touch with reality. Not material reality, but social reality. Actually, it’s more like I’ve lost any faith that society has anything to do with reality. And perhaps it’s wrong to expect it to. But I just can’t get excited about fantasies any more.

People tell stories. A lot of the time, those stories are fantastical to some degree. Some stories are literally classified as fantasies, but I don’t just mean those. I mean the stories we tell ourselves every day, about our jobs, our hobbies and interests, our families, the things that give us meaning and a sense of purpose, and what makes us feel significant. Culture is the medium of story-telling, and these days, its overloaded with fantasies.

The thing is, if you strip all those fantasies away, all you have left are animal instincts and the concern for basic material needs. But these just don’t fill up much time, at least for me. Honestly, I don’t think they’d fill up much time for anyone if it weren’t for all the other distractions, the fantasy needs. Certainly, if a small minority of extremely obsessed, and slightly deluded, people weren’t constantly trying to raise the bar, to up the stakes in the arms race of social status, we’d all have a lot more time to focus on practical matters, or to just relax.

I know that a lot of people don’t actually believe that they have much time for chasing after fantasies. Those people have two things I don’t: children and houses (well, probably only one house). Those are two things I’ve avoided. I’m not saying I wouldn’t find meaning in owning a house. It would certainly give me something practical to focus on, and keep me motivated to work hard to make income to pay all those bills that a house brings with it. Nor am I against having children, per se. But the job+house+car+kids+school+vacations+anxiety is not for me. I have anxiety enough without all the additional stress, conflict and endless running around.

I think I’m existentially exhausted from too much dissociated information.

I’m also hitting another career disillusionment patch. It’s nice to have the option to take a break, which I’m doing. My expenses are low, and my rates are high, so I don’t have to do a lot of work to keep myself comfortable. I can stop and consider what all this craziness is about.

It doesn’t seem to be about anything but itself. It’s a self-perpetuating do-nothing machine.

If people just lived and worked in the same place, with the same people, would they need smart phones and social media to keep in touch? Would they need cars and trucks to drive around in?

I know people want to own nice things. I want to own nice things. But how many people actually own nice things? A few people don’t need to buy things from IKEA, although some do anyway, just because they don’t have time to learn how to shop for nice furniture. If you own nice things, you have to take care of them. Or you should, at any rate. The point of nice things is that they last a long time.

Then again, a lot of people seem to want to buy nice things that have very short life spans. Disposable designer goods. Clothing, gadgets, housewares. Some people even go through cars and houses as fast as they go through socks. But I guess if you have the money, you might as well spend it, right? Though I don’t know what this says about the people who spend money that they don’t have.

I would like to make something wonderful. But my mental space is too full of short-lived, low-quality, high-noise concepts. Being a consumer software developer is a ticket to a world of wandering attention spans, disconnected news bites, confusing marketing messages and deceptive advertisements for fantasy cure-alls. It’s the same all across the consumer media and cultural environment, whether popular or haute. Someone’s always selling something. Everything is for sale.

I know some people find refuge in art, or nature, or science, or various other activities where they can shift into a different state of consciousness, and this gives them respite from the feeling of being constantly influenced by invasive messages. But I see it everywhere. OK, not in nature. And not so much in science, which is very close to nature: the world that exists regardless of human interference. But society, people, are a perpetual source of semiotic influence. Everything anyone says or does is saturated with semiotic viruses trying to infiltrate your understanding and cultural interpretations.

I got into software because a) I’m good at it, b) it pays well, and c) I wanted to make conceptual, interactive models of dynamic systems. But the buyers of software only want one of two kinds of models: models of imaginary worlds in which you get to pretend to be some kind of super-hero, some construct of ideal humanity that has evolved as part of our cultural self-image, or models of consumers and social networks, which are built by companies who are interested in making new cultural images for you to try to live up to, so that you’ll buy their symbolic products, whether real, virtual, or (usually) some blend of the two. Some people want to sell a fantasy, and others want to buy a fantasy. So it all works out.

I’m not interested in buying or selling fantasies any more. But I’m not sure what to fill my time with instead. I am close to completely convinced that everything beyond basic material needs represent one kind of fantasy or another. The past is a fantasy. The future is a fantasy. Far-away places are a fantasy. If it’s not immediately in front of you, you’re imagining it, and it’s almost immaterial whether or not it’s real, except insofar as you value what you believe to be true over what you would merely like to be true. It’s all equally imaginary.

In other words, I am imaginary, and you are imaginary, and everyone that we think we know is also imaginary. Everything you own is imaginary (since ownership itself is imaginary). Money is imaginary. Society is imaginary. Meaning is imaginary. Not that that makes things less meaningful. But it puts a lot of doubt in my ability to believe that any particular activity is especially significant, since I know that the sense of meaning is contrived. It makes me tired. And it makes me hungry.

I’m going to go make some tea or something.

I hate social media companies

Or perhaps I resent them.

They ask their users to create content—to do the vast majority of the work at creating a significant environment for interacting and sharing—and then they advertise and make a killing.

I’ve made no bones about my dislike of Facebook. While I haven’t deleted my account, I never use it. I do use Twitter, and now I’m on WordPress, technically a social media company, too. Same principle, same results. Although at least I maintain control of my own words, here.

I want to have the guts to ditch Twitter. I want it to be replaced with a free, open source distributed system, like e-mail. But it would require a non-profit, a crazy philanthropist, or a government agency to make that happen.

I also hate e-mail, for different reasons than I hate contemporary social media. E-mail is architecturally sound, but the inability of most implementations to follow the specifications, the problems with the specifications themselves, and issues like spam and HTML mail and sync, weigh it down tremendously.

Some years ago, I was hoping that Jabber/XMPP would replace e-mail and also handle the work of IM and anything else that fit the secure publish-subscribe model. But instead we got corporate social media.

The profit motive gives us what we want, but only partly. The civic motive could give us all of what we want, but nobody seems to know it’s even a possibility. It would require buyers to be informed as to the issues and alternatives. But people don’t have time to be informed before they make a decision. It seems that it’s only important to be informed after the decision is already made. So that you can either make the same decision as everyone else, or rationalize.

Distributed and open social media platforms require the participation of lots of parties, instead of just one central corporation. E-mail requires servers to be operated, or at least paid for, by every organization which owns its own domain name. Likewise, the domain name system itself is distributed, to great effect.

DNS is a mandatory feature of the Internet. Although there is nothing saying that it couldn’t be taken over by a single private company, as terrible as that would be (in my opinion). It’s actually somewhat amazing that there hasn’t been a rapid centralization of ISPs, domain registrars and other Internet service suppliers. Even though the big players account for a lot of the Internet delivery and name management, the number of smaller players is still pretty big.

So why not social media? Why not have a whole industry of name books and thought streams? Why not store your thoughts, posts and images with one or more companies that you choose from amongst a group who compete for your business? Why not have the choice of any number of apps which provide submission interfaces and browsing interfaces that match your needs and your style?

It can be done. Developers will make it. We just have to say that we want it. Maybe there will still be ads and even scams, but it would cut down on all the undesired app clutter, and make it a lot harder for companies to sell you and your data, while giving you nothing but the appearance of a service that is honestly pretty straightforward. All the intelligence is in the analysis and marketing, not the data management.

Strip away the noise, and you would have something clean and simple and easy to work with. All that is required are companies to host your data for you, and even that could be handled by a cheap data storage server and an access service.

That’s all I want.

Why do the “wrong” people end up in charge?

Because the “right” people have decided that they have better things to do.

Running an organization, whether a business or a non-profit, a small town or a large country, is a lot of work, and requires a lot of skill (to do well). You make decisions on how to use finite time, money and other resources to best achieve the goals of the organization. While the end goal may be straightforward—”make a profit” or “make society better”—it’s not at all obvious how to accomplish that. If it were, there were be no challenge. If there is no challenge, there is no reward.

So why do so many talented and ethically grounded people find the idea of leadership—management—so unpleasant? Is it too tough? Do they think it’s boring? Or do they believe that they lack the necessary skills to lead?

No one is a born leader. Leadership is a skill learned by conscientious effort: through study, practise and experience. You need to get your ten thousand hours. Like any skill, there are undoubtedly personality traits or other natural abilities which may provide an advantage, but they aren’t mandatory prerequisites to do well. The only mandatory requirement is a conviction that leadership is important.

And how could it not be important? Virtually every significant achievement of the last century relied on the contributions of a group of individuals.

Every group with an explicit goal needs to be organized. The most efficient structure, historically, has been some variation of a hierarchy. I’m not convinced that the distribution of responsibility and that of power must necessarily match up exactly, It seems to often work out that way. It may be another symptom of the fact I’m trying to emphasize.

Leaders get to decide how an organization will be structured, and how responsibility and power will be distributed. If people with ethical principles, creativity and dedication do not become leaders, it follows that those without those qualities will have to fill in. And of course they want to fill in, because positions of leadership are most amenable to abuse and corruption by the unethical.

The role of leadership desperately needs an image makeover. It needs to be re-imagined to be less attractive to the untalented and unscrupulous, and more attractive to the principled and capable. There are a lot of bad leaders out there: bad politicians, bad judges, bad officers, bad managers. But if you have no talent or ability, you’re going to try to fake it, and the best place to fake it is in a place where people assume that talent is neither necessary nor important.

The assumption, either explicit or implicit, that leaders are people who have no other practical, useful talents is an extremely bad one for a society which depends so heavily on the abilities of those who manage, organize and direct.

Every day, countless intelligent, capable and creative people decide not to participate in choosing who gets to make the most important decisions. At best, they wait until the choices have all been made before voicing their opinion: they complain about the results, they don’t buy the product, they vote negatively instead of positively.

It’s absurd. It’s madness. It’s self-destructive, because it undermines the success of every organization of which we are directly or indirectly a part, weakening those organizations’ chances of success, and consequently, our chances for individual reward.

The way we think about leadership needs to change, or the situation will only get worse.

Edmonton

We arrived in Edmonton on Saturday, and took possession of our rented condo on Sunday. Our stuff is being delivered tomorrow. We have to sleep on the air mattress for one more night.

Ms. Brillient started her new job yesterday. She’s already immensely happier. It takes her less than twenty minutes between here and there. She starts at nine and works a standard eight hours.

We’ve been walking around a bit. It’s different, but not surprisingly so. Urban development is a chaotic mismash. There doesn’t appear to be much, if any, real plan to the growth strategy. The architecture is a real mix. There are a few attempts and shopping-oriented streets or intersections, but not many pedestrians. It’s not a city for pedestrians.

Well, what I’ve seen of it. Mostly downtown and Oliver, where we live, just west of downtown. It’s built for cars, with long, wide, multi-lane streets. The street numbering is very rational. The city is divided into four quadrants along major compass directions. Every street is both North or South and East or West. We’re in the Northwest. Streets and avenues run north/south and east/west respectively, and are numbered starting at 100.

Building numbers count up from each cross street (or avenue), and are prefixed with that street’s number. So 11016 -114 Avenue is #16 up from 110th Street on 114 Avenue. In this quadrant, NorthWest, street numbers count up to the north (Streets) or west (Avenues). I assume it’s similar in the other sectors.

The city is chock full of enormous pickup trucks, as expected, driven predominantly by young men wearing baseball caps and mirrored sunglasses. Many people I’ve seen on the street in Oliver look worn and weathered. I’m seeing people most likely to be out and about during the day, instead of at work: retired people, teenage loafers, labourers and mechanics, people between jobs. It’s a little different than the hipsters and slovenly high tech workers of Queen West and Liberty Village.

I’ve gotten a few curious or doubtful stares, but no overt hostility. I wouldn’t think I would attract much attention, but I’m sure I don’t look like your typical Oilers fan. But I probably need a hair cut.